Nicolle history of St Helier - Chapter 7

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Growth of the town

Materials are unfortunately lacking which would shed light on the development of the village of St Helier during the 15th century. The paucity of historical documents bearing on this period of the history of Jersey is remarkable and it is perhaps too much to hope now that any new records will ever come to light.

Missing records

It must be explained that until the commencement of the 16th century it would appear that the Acts of the Royal Court were not regularly registered. In 1495 we find Henry VII expressly ordering that all decisions and ordinances of the Court should be registered. If records were kept prior to this, they evidently remained in the possession of the Bailiffs, who were responsible for them and were bound to produce them if called upon by higher authority. The Assize Rolls of the 13th and 14th centuries clearly show this to have been the practice and it was a custom well- established both in Jersey and in Guernsey.

The explanation of the absence of the Rolls of the Court prior to the 16th century given by some historians, that they were burnt when the plague raged in St Helier in 1518, is unlikely. Moreover it is remarkable that the Rolls of the Guernsey Court commence about the same period as those of Jersey. It is, therefore, more reasonable to believe that until the beginning of the 16th century, no regular records were kept.

St Aubin

This will be a convenient place to refer to a statement which some writers have without any authority in support advanced, that St Aubin is the ancient capital of Jersey. This is entirely erroneous.

We have seen that the earliest buildings erected in Jersey of any consequence were those of the first Abbey of St Helier and that it was in proximity to the Abbey that the early population congregated. The village of St Helier existed long before that of St Aubin. In those early times we find that the Court invariably held its sittings at St Helier. The great majority of the old deeds passed before the Bailiffs and Jurats state explicitly that they were executed at St Helier.

The prison was at Mont Orgueil, where the Governor or Master Porter resided, but certain Crown tenants, or holders of land in the parishes of St Martin, Grouville, and St Saviour, owed the service of conducting the prisoners from the Castle to the Court at St Helier. They were called "Hallebardiers" and numbered between one and two hundred. As late as 1875, when an execution took place in Jersey, a number of these Hallebardiers were summoned to be present to form a guard and to maintain order.

The market was held at St Helier, for in the ordinances enacted in 1461 by Pierre de Breze, Comte de Maulevrier, who held the Island for the French King, we find it expressly stated that the inhabitants had petitioned for the market to be held in the town of St Helier every Saturday, "as it used to be of old". A custom had apparently crept in of holding the market at Gorey for the benefit and convenience of the garrison.

St Aubin has never been termed in any official document the capital of the Island. At a later period in our history it was certainly a place of some importance, because it possessed a harbour before St Helier did, and that consequently many merchants and ship owners took up their residence there, as being more convenient for their business. At a more recent date, when St Aubin was a very flourishing place, in an Order-in-Council of 31 May 1750 on the subject of the building of the General Hospital, we find St Helier described as "The Capital of His Majesty's Island of Jersey."

With all the respect which is due to the pleasant little town of St Aubin, I think the precedence of St Helier as the capital of Jersey for all time cannot be impugned.

The 15th century in England was the period of the great development of English towns, but St Helier, isolated as it was, was not affected by any of those influences which brought about the rise of the great towns in the mother country. The real and vigorous growth of St Helier is bound up with the development of its trade and shipping, which began with the construction of proper harbour accommodation when the 18th century was well nigh drawing to a close.

Court and States Acts

With the opening of the 16th century we have at our disposal the Rolls of the Royal Court and the decisions of the States found interspersed therein. Here is considerable material for the historian and student. The social state of any country at any given stage in its life is expressed by, and is indeed almost identical with, the condition of its manners and customs.

The Acts and ordinances of the Court and States in the 16th and 17th centuries are thus of the utmost importance, for they picture to us the Jerseyman of the period and the manner of his life. To those who can peruse them in the original French, they will afford considerable amusement by reason of the quaintness of language, not to mention the piquancy of their contents.

We shall refer to these interesting records and quote a few as illustrative of local manners and customs, but before doing so, let us gather together what we can concerning St Helier itself.

It may be said that St Helier emerged from its infancy and arrived at manhood towards the middle of the 16th century. It then came to be designated as the "town of St Hilary". Prior to this it was called a bourg which in ancient times (as still today in Normandy) was used to designate an agglomeration of a few houses only around the parish church.

Town Hill

An Act of the Royal Court of 1569 thus designates St Helier. Another in 1575, only six years afterwards, refers to the Capitaine de la Ville de St Helier. The first occasion on record when it was called a town is of a slightly earlier date and is to be found in a letter from the Privy Council to the Royal Court in the year 1550, when the famous Duke of Somerset was Governor of Jersey. A suggestion was made that the Town should be removed to the Hill, previously referred to as Mont de la Ville, where Fort Regent has been built.

In the event of a sudden attack, St Helier was apparently so undefended that the inhabitants would have had no place whither they might retire with safety. We must bear in mind that Elizabeth Castle did not then exist as a protection to the Town. The Council considered that the site of Mont de la Ville could be rendered impregnable at little cost. The suggestion was not acted upon, though not lost sight of, for 40 years later, in a letter dated 10 May 1590, the Council again referred to the scheme.

Three years after, a letter from the Council, dated 14 May 1593, informs us of the modification of the project of transferring the Town to the Hill and the substitution therefor of a plan whereby the Town Hill itself should be fortified by means of a bulwark of earth. The well-known engineer of the day, Paul Ivy, to whom I have already referred, was about to be sent over with reference to the fortifications of Elizabeth Castle, which had been commenced in 1551, and the inhabitants of St Helier were directed to confer with him as to the defence of the town, as appears by a letter addressed to the Governor dated 10 September 1593.

In this letter we are informed that the Town then contained 300 households, from which we may infer that the population must have been about 1,500 souls. The same letter relates also how the sands of the seashore with every south-westerly gale filled the streets. It will thus be seen that St Helier had assumed at the threshold of the 17th century such dimensions as would entitle it in those days to be called a town and this was probably one of the reasons which militated against its transfer to the hill above.

But the strongest objection to the proposal was undoubtedly the difficulty of providing a sufficient water supply. It may be observed that when Fort Regent was built in 1806 a very deep well had to be sunk; the Jerseymen of the 16th century were probably not equal to the task.


Nicolle: The Town of St Helier
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